Posts tagged “alaska

Raven’s nest in moose antlers

A few years ago I went with my husband up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.  We stopped a few different places including a storage yard and former state camp called Happy Valley where I found one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever happened upon… a raven’s nest in a mounted rack of moose antlers with two babies in it!


Raven yanks another raven’s tail

The average adult raven is about 2.5 pounds and it’s hard to tell adults from juveniles.  The below video shows a power struggle between ravens at a food source.  At the very beginning you can see a raven on the far left grab another raven’s tail feathers with his beak and pull him or her away from the food.  Another seems to join in.  (By the way, if the video is blurry find the settings in the bottom right hand corner of the player and change it to a higher resolution.  Youtube automatically chooses a low setting so it will download faster.)

After reading Ravens in Winter, a book by Bernd Heinrich, I’m inclined to believe that the commotion going on in the video has to do with a power struggle (to gain access to the food) between the juvenile birds and the adults.  According to Heinrich, adults are usually silent at carcasses (dead animals in the wild), and juveniles are very noisy.  The juveniles “yell” at kills and make a commotion, possibly to attract more juveniles to the kill, in order to compete with the adults and gain access to the food.

Heinrich “proves” through observation and careful note-taking that ravens actively recruit other ravens to food piles.  He speculates, after studying raven behavior for many years, that this recruitment is not necessarily altruistic, or done in order to get the favor back some day.  Instead, it is probably related more to “gaining or maintaining access to the food than to sharing the wealth.”

Juveniles actively recruit, in order to overwhelm by sheer numbers, the adults at the carcass, so that the adults will give up defending the carcass, which they do when they are just too outnumbered.

So if we can extend this power struggle at carcasses in the field to city food (trash) then it’s possible the squawking raven in the video, the one being pulled from the food by his or her tail feathers, is likely a juvenile, being bossed around by the adults, who are not as vocal.

I strongly encourage any bird lover to read Ravens in Winter.  This bird that I see nearly every day of my life is actually quite mysterious and Heinrich helps us understand their possible and likely motivations.

Thanks for reading!  Happy New Year!

 


Black-Capped Chickadee Beak Deformity

Chickadee with beak deformityI made this little animation to show how this poor chickadee was being bothered by its beak deformity.  Every so often it would rub its beak against the edge of the bird feeder like this.  It appeared relatively healthy so it must have been able to eat satisfactorily, but apparently this deformity causes it to be obsessive about trying to scrape off the excess beak.


Image

Raven, in the winter sun

Raven in Tree


Spruce Grouse, not hunted

Spruce GrouseThe spruce grouse is a very common bird in interior Alaska.   It’s one of several species of grouse that live in this state.

The one on the left has red combs above its eyes so we know it’s a male (click it for a better view).  I’ve seen quite a few spruce grouse over the years but never have I seen the courtship display.  The National Geographic Feild Guide to Birds says “In courtship strutting display, male spreads his tail, erects the red combs above his eyes, and rapidly beats his wings; some males also give a series of low-pitched hoots.”  This would be something to see!Spruce Grouse, female

The male on the left is standing next to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and my husband and I saw at least 10 or 20 when we were driving the pipeline access road for a couple of hours.  The spruce grouse is a game bird and hunters can take them throughout Alaska except during the months of May, June & July (with a few exceptions).  It is somewhat common to hunt them for food.  To me, this is a necessary evil.  I’m a birder and I consider myself an environmentalist but I think that hunting has a role to play in a healthy diet.  As long as the bird dies quickly and the meat is used for food I am not against this.  I have had ptarmigan myself, but never grouse.  It was delicious.  Eating a bird that has had a ‘happy’ life is better for everyone, and for the world, than one who lives in tiny cages or in huge flocks in warehouses.

Residents of Alaska can also kill cormorants, crows, and Snowy Owls, as long as they are taken for food or clothing.  It sounds cruel but there are Alaska Native traditions that involve these birds and their feathers and this must be respected as long as the birds are not endangered.

Spruce Grouse next to the Trans-Alaska PipelineThe spruce grouse on the right, and its chick, were spotted on a trail about a mile off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, back in 2006.  You can see the female has a Spruce Grouse, chickreddish-brown stripe over its eye, reminiscent of the male. I don’t remember exactly what time of year I took the photos but it was probably early June or late May.  (I’m not sure exactly what to call the baby since it seems bigger than a chick and smaller than a juvenile.  It’s more like a ‘tween. 🙂

Hard to believe but this bird subsists mainly on spruce needles!  They must have powerful digestive systems.  They can stuff their crops full of the equivalent of 10% of their body weight, to be digested later, and their gizzards grow by 75% during the winter when their energy needs increase.

As someone who lives in interior Alaska year-round, I’m quite impressed with a bird that can live here in the winter.  Along with ravens and chickadees, they have adapted some clever ways to make it.

Here’s to a mild winter for us all!

 

 

 


Bird Congregation

I don’t think this is a very common sight on the coastal plains of northern Alaska (or anywhere?), but as my husband drove in to Prudhoe Bay last spring, he spied this unusually large gathering of various birds.

Raven, Rough-Legged HawkThe rough-legged hawk and raven seem to be acting as sentries over the vast flocks, but they are watching for sinister purposes.

Rough-legged HawkYes, watching carefully.

Rough-legged hawk eating a duckSure enough,  a hawk has gotten herself a meal.

Rough-legged hawk But really, how can you blame her?

Short-eared OwlA short-eared owl perches nearby.

Kind of hard to believe that little twig can hold him up.  He must be all fluff.

And life goes on….


Butterfly Exits Cocoon

I imagine that most people who like birds don’t mind butterflies, so here’s a slideshow I created from photos taken last summer of a butterfly leaving a cocoon.  For over a week I kept the camera and its time lapse device set up outside, through heat and rain, waiting until it broke out of its temporary home… then the actual event lasted only a few minutes!  And because of memory card limitations I could only set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds – I wish it could’ve been a shorter interval – but I’m still pleased with the few shots I got.

I don’t know the specific name of this butterfly but I’ve definitely seen it before.

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 1Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 2

Butterfly Leaving Cocooon 3

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 4

After the butterfly left the cocoon it crawled into some potato plant leaves and you can see that it dripped a dark fluid that looks like blood (but of course isn’t).  Apparently it’s a waste product that doesn’t come from their wings as I had first assumed but from their abdomen, being released after chrysalis, the cocoon stage.

ButterflyThe butterfly never opened its wings for me so I didn’t get that photo.  And I wish I knew the name of this butterfly!  Please comment if you have any idea.  Thanks and I hope everyone is having a terrific summer!


Redpoll Baby (and it just stopped snowing!)

Redpoll Baby

I’m happy to say my husband caught the birding bug!  He took this photo of a juvenile redpoll.  I would even go as far as calling it a baby redpoll.  It’s hard to tell how tiny it is, but he said just a couple inches, really small.  The short tail feathers probably enhance the tiny effect.

We’re a bit surprised that there are fledged redpolls this early in the spring.  It stopped snowing less than 2 weeks ago!  And now it’s 70 degrees, go figure.  Either way, my husband said this little guy flew away,barely, so maybe he or she will have a fighting chance.


Redpoll: Adapted to Gorging

Common Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These redpolls, and many more, are coming to our feeder lately in droves.   I’ve started putting seed out one or two times a day instead of letting them gorge themselves at the feeder nonstop.  I don’t want to test it out but I would be willing to bet they could empty the  entire contents of the feeder in only one day. (It’s on the small side but can still fit at least a quart jar’s worth of sunflower hearts.)

It’s unbelievable how much they can eat.  My guess as to how many birds visit the feeder per day is perhaps 30 to 40, though it could be upwards of 100 or more stopping by once a day (or less often).

Actually, they aren’t eating most of the seed.  Apparently they store it in their “esophageal diverticulum” and regurgitate it later to eat in peace.

Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These two”on-alert” fine fellows might actually be females (lack of red on their chests).

Once late May and June arrive, the birds practically disappear, so even if they are acting like little piggies at the trough right now, we still enjoy them!


“Planned Pigeonhood” in Waikiki

Pigeons in WaikikiIf you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the beautiful island of Hawaii you’ve probably visited Honolulu.  And if you’ve visited Honolulu that means you’ve probably been to Waikiki.  And if you’ve been to Waikiki that means you’ve seen the pigeons (a.k.a. rock doves).

Lovely birds, as special as any living creature, but not very popular with the tourists.

Hawaii is a common destination for Alaskans in the winter.  With an almost total lack of sunshine from November to February we pledge to ourselves that this winter we are getting out!  Hopefully it happens.  And there is nary a more direct route to full-on sunshine then the quick five or so hours from Anchorage to Honolulu.

Pigeon missing footThe pigeon on the very left is looking pretty mangy (click on the photo to see it larger).  There are so many pigeons in Waikiki, with no natural predators anywhere in sight, that they over breed and become a danger to themselves and people.  The photo on the right shows another pigeon from Waikiki, this one missing a foot and walking around a restaurant hunting for food scraps and somehow managing to avoid being clobbered.

So when I saw this posting by the Human Society about OvoControl, a contraceptive-laced food that property owners can feed pigeons, I was thrilled.  It describes how the manager of The International Marketplace, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Waikiki, chose to take a chance on the product and saw a 60% reduction in pigeons after 12 months. (It costs $9 a day to feed/treat 100 pigeons.)

Talk about an ideal non-violent and humane solution!  Maybe this will catch on in communities that are fed up with the overpopulation of this city-loving bird.


Puffed Up Pigeons

Pigeons in Fairbanks during 30 below zero (F) weather

It’s amazing that any pigeons at all make it through our frigid Fairbanks winters.

This year we saw several weeks of sustained 30-40 below zero (F) weather and they are still flying around!  (This photo was taken when it was about 30 below.)

They perch at night in attics and eaves, and sometimes in trees.  Some nice people throw seed on the ground outside their homes throughout the winter, and the birds congregate in those places during the day.   Not so much different then me feeding little redpolls and chickadees I suppose!


Bald Eagling in Homer, Alaska

Bald Eagle on DriftwoodMy friend and I drove into Homer, Alaska one evening in April of 2006.  Our trip was fortunately timed – though not purposely – because we caught the eagles still in town.  They were reaping the benefits of friendly human feeders before leaving for summer’s greener pastures.

Bald Eage on a Street LightAs we drove down onto the Homer Spit eagles were perched on nearly every building.  The sun’s long evening rays set them off and they were so still that we asked each other, are they real??  But as we drove down the spit to the Land’s End Hotel, we saw enough of them shuffle their feathers or blink their eyes to know they were totally and gorgeously real.

If I had only thought to take a photo… (Though at that time I used a plain point and shoot which would not have done justice to the moment.)

Over the next couple of days I took plenty of time to walk the beaches and absorb the feelings of a place that was (and still is) pretty much totally foreign to me.  As a landlubber in Alaska I see plenty of wildlife, but usually not the same wildlife as near the coasts.

Bald Eagles, Gulls & Crows

This was a common sight on the beaches, people leaving fish guts and carcases out for the eagles.  Gulls and crows benefit too.

Bald Eagles in Homer, AlaskaI never saw an eagle growing up (bald or not!) until about 10 years ago.  Now I see them at least a couple of times a year in and around Fairbanks.  It could be that as a child or young adult I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d be willing to bet that their population has grownImmature Bald Eagle in Homer, Alaska throughout Alaska over the last couple of decades as it has generally in North America.

On the right you can see the mottled feather pattern of a 2 or 3 year old eagle.  It takes 4 years for an eagle to get its adult plumage and wing length.

Valdez has quite a few bald eagles too, but I’ve never seen this many at a time anywhere but Homer.  (Some day I’ll make it to Haines too for the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival and the Chilkat Preserve.)  If you’re a bald eagle fan all three of these places should be on your list!

Bald Eagle sitting on a nestPeople watching bald eaglesBald Eagle Talon Prints


A chubby Redpoll can’t stop eating

Fat Redpoll

A few years ago a chubby Redpoll visited our feeder.

This antique dish had broken and I couldn’t part with it, so I put seed in it, and the redpoll adopted it.  He (or she) sat right in it and ate and ate and ate.  Like his full switch never got flipped.

He moved quite slow.  My husband and I figured that he was missing some kind of instinct or characteristic that gives birds their fast-twitch, jumpy nature.  Probably something that they need to survive.

He’s puffed up too because of the chilly weather, but this bird was quite unusual in that he was fatter, slower, and never flew away intermittently like the other birds.  He was totally content to eat continuously, rarely looking up.  This was the very last photo I took and out of at least 20, this is the only time I got him looking up.

After watching hundreds or even thousands of birds at the feeder over the years, this little guy’s behavior was profoundly different than all the others.


To Feed or Not to Feed

Junco that just hit the window

This junco hit our second story window and sat stunned, but alive, here on the ground last summer.  Juncos are sweet little birds that we see from May to September all around our house pecking at seeds on the ground.  They visit our feeder during this time but mostly stay on the floor of the deck or on the ground under the feeder, hopping around picking up fallen sunflower heart pieces and birch seeds.  They can leave so late in the season, I believe, because they are only flying as far as the southern coast of Alaska where it doesn’t freeze so hard in the winter.

Junco that hit the windowMy husband and I immensely love watching our feeder birds:  redpolls, juncos, chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers.  He often places small amounts of bird seed on the snow mounds that cover the deck railings and flower pots in the winter so that redpolls don’t have to mob the feeder and so that we can see them closer.  We stand at the window and marvel at how they can live at 30 below zero, and at their quick movements and little arguments.

But I wonder that having a bird feeder is the best thing for the birds.  Many birds hit our windows, but by far most of them end up alive (though certainly a bit damaged afterwards).  After they hit the windows as they sit stunned until they are able to fly away, they are undoubtedly vulnerable to predation.  There’s a neighborhood cat that I fear visits in the wee hours of the morning in the summer and I have no idea if it uses the feeder as a baiting station.  I have no evidential reason to believe this but am concerned.  Other than that cat our neighborhood totally lacks outdoor cats as far as we can tell.  This one we’ve only seen twice in our 5 years here.  (And our two cats don’t go outside without being chaperoned.)

Feeding birds seems on the surface not a bad idea.  But is it good to get them reliant on what we provide?  So that they lose just a little bit of their natural foraging skills to their eventual detriment?  What about the seed itself… are there pesticides on it, or fungicides?  Is it even good for a redpoll or chickadee to eat that much sunflower heart instead of what it would normally find in nature?  Could there sometimes be mold on the seeds that would be dangerous to the birds?  Is feeding birds related to the sickness of chickadees that results in 6-10% of them having beak deformities?  I’ve read up a bit on this topic and there are not a lot of answers to be had (although plenty of guesses and opinions).

So unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feeding birds is the absolute right thing to do, but I’m unwilling to give it up unless I see direct evidence that it harms them more than it helps them.  The only way I know for sure that it harms them is when they hit the windows.  Redpolls eating seed outside windowI’ve went to great lengths to try to prevent it, such as wiring and beads that I once strung across our largest window for a few years.  The thing is, I know that they would hit the windows even if we didn’t purposefully draw them here to our house with food.

Alas, it would be a sad sad day for my husband and I if we were to decide that the harm to the birds outweighs the benefits (to us and the birds).

You can see here the redpolls chowing down today on the seed my husband has strewn on the snow in front of the window.  The temperature gauge doesn’t go colder than 20 below – it’s about 30 below zero (F) right now.  I can’t imagine those poor little guys can’t use some extra food at this temperature!

But am I justifying?  This summer I plan to try something else on the windows:  CDs strung on wires or string.  I’ve also switched out the bird feeder when it was just too hard to clean anymore.  Any tips are welcome!  Thanks for reading.


A Lovebird in Alaska

Let me tell you a story about a little lovebird.

About 10 years ago, her and her mate were adopted by my mother, myself, and my sister.  We make up a small real estate office, and they were given to us by one of our clients who was moving out of state.  The lovebird pair became a fixture in our office.  We bought them a large cage, toys and whatever else we thought could make them happy.  They had several broods, which were adopted out, with any left being brought to the local pet store for a credit in bird food.

After we had them for about 5 years, the male died.  He seemed sick and groggy one day, then the next morning someone found him stiff on the bottom of the cage.  A sad day, and we were all worried about the female since everyone told us that lovebirds need a mate or they will die.

By then though, we had adopted another bird, a parakeet.  In the course of showing an apartment a few months before, a tenant who was moving out said he was going to let his kid’s parakeet out into the wild so that in its last days at least it could have some freedom.  Malarkey, I thought, that bird will be terrified.  It will die of shock and lack of food in no time, or some ravens will kill it.  So luckily, our lone female lovebird had a friend by the time her husband died, already set up in a small cage next to her big cage.

They chirped at each other, inches away but separated by 2 sets of bars, conversing continually and seemingly very happy.  It makes me wonder, were they speaking the same language?

I didn’t name them.  Birds to me are animals that belong in the wild, along with all other exotics like snakes, lizards, turtles, etc.  Unless you can create an ecosystem that is so near to being like their natural one, with all the animal’s social needs met as well, then fine.  But otherwise, I can’t support it.  There are probably some exceptions such as animals that can bond with humans – like some birds and mammals, but not reptiles.  My nieces owned rats for a time and those little creatures seemed truly thrilled with their highfalutin’ lifestyle.  So with some exceptions my feelings about exotic pets are on the skeptical side although I recognize this is a complicated issue.  I try not to be judgmental, but a snake or lizard just simply cannot be happy in a glass terrarium.  And furthering the trade of exotics – whether illegal or not – is just wrong.

So with these feelings in mind, it was with a huge amount of regret that I purchased a replacement parakeet buddy for the lovebird when the adopted one died.  I was so concerned that she would live a tortured existence without a friend, dying alone and sad.  I actually tried to get one that looked exactly the same as the old parakeet, thinking I could fool her.  So silly, I think now.  She is way too smart.

Over the years I have observed her observing me.  I’ve seen her peer intently at every move I make in or around her cage, changing her bathing water, her drinking water, her food.  We are tentative friends.  I’m sure I’m not one of the scary ones, like children of clients who make loud noises or poke fingers in her cage.  When someone talks loudly in front of her cage or appears suddenly she always retreats to the far corner, behind a big wad of hanging toys. She is shy and reserved and I don’t blame her for being that way at all.

A few days ago my mother was cleaning the cage when the phone rang and she accidentally left the cage door open.  When she came back after some time, she exclaimed to the young people sitting there waiting for their parents that the bird could have gotten out of the cage since she had left the door open!  She did, the kids said.  They explained that she had flown up to perch on the cubicle divider for a little while, and then flew back into her cage!

So I hope that means she likes her roomy cage, and that she feels safe there.  And I know she is smart.  I believe any animal that has curiosity must have some sort of intelligence.  One time my sister was changing her bathing water and the slider got propped open accidentally, and when my sister returned she was peering out through the hole at the world without bars in between.  That takes awareness and observation.

So when we call someone a bird brain, I really don’t understand why that is an insult.  The people who came up with that phrase had it wrong.  Their whole idea of intelligence is based on human-centric thinking that says we are the pinnacle of nature, the only worthy creatures on earth.  But aren’t we the ones polluting our world to point where we’re concerned for the future?  If smarts are based on foresight and planning for the future, humans are not all that smart.

Critiques on the state of human affairs aside, this post was inspired by a video on pbs.org about Alex the parrot and Irene Pepperberg, his researcher and best friend who taught him to communicate with her.  It’s a must watch for people who see that animals have intelligence.  This is proof, plain and simple.

When you see how the parrot is able to answer questions that take insight and intelligence, it makes me think that this world and it’s inhabitants need more care and consideration than humans give them presently.  That they deserve more respect.  At the very least, we should not automatically assume other living things are emotionless unintelligent creatures.

Thanks for reading!


Reflections on the Sandhill Crane

The Sandhill Crane has a lot of personality.  From their rattling call to their long legs and red banded eyes, you can’t mistake one.  Especially given it’s statuesque 4 foot height… good thing they don’t want to get too close to us because they would probably be quite intimidating!

The one on the left popped up at a pond my husband and I like to visit near our house.  In May, full of mosquitoes, but an unexpected sweet birding spot.  This bird wanted us to remove ourselves quickly.  I presume it was spreading its wings in an attempt to make itself look bigger and more menacing.  It was having a private moment, who are we to interrupt!?  So we snapped a couple shots and skedaddled.  (Although I don’t know that this would be a safe place to make a nest because of neighborhood dogs or other wandering animals like foxes.)

As you can see, they have a lot of color variation, in fact their rust and gray blend is quite striking, having an almost metallic glint to it.

The photos on the right are from Creamer’s Field, an awesome place in Fairbanks to see migrating cranes, geese, and ducks.  (I’ll do a post on it in the future.)  The pair on the right must be a parent and offspring, since the one hasn’t attained adult coloring of gray and red face.  If you want to see a short video of this pair click here, but if you do, keep an eye peeled for the Canada Geese in the background waddling through the grass.

The splendid artwork on the left was found driving through North Dakota or thereabouts, and if I remember right they were celebrating a crane festival.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds Sandhill Cranes to be extraordinary creatures!       —————————

Remember, you can click on any of these images to see their maximum size, and then click the “back” button to get back to this page.  And, if you need the font size to be bigger on this or any webpage, press Ctrl at the same time as the + sign.


Why did the Lesser Yellowlegs cross the road?

To lead me away from her nesting site most likely!

It’s not too hard to find Lesser Yellowlegs in interior Alaska during the summer months if you get a ways out of town near some water.  And you’ll know you found one when you hear that mind-numbing “TU TU TU” alarm call.  (You can hear it here.)

The Greater Yellowlegs – a larger version of this bird – also visits Alaska in the spring and summer, but doesn’t come this far north.  In the winter, Yellowlegs sandpipers can be found in Mexico and the coastal and southern edge of the U.S.

They eat aquatic insects, snails, & small fish, nest in depressions in the ground in bogs and treeless tundra, and give birth to 4 eggs which when hatched are precocial which means they can fend for themselves as soon as their natal down is dry.

It’s hard to believe, but people used to hunt sandpipers like these!  These skinny little birds were game species and apparently market hunters nearly wiped out many types of shorebirds before they were protected in the early 1900s.  Thank goodness!!!

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Curious Townsend’s Warbler

This little guy showed up on our deck about noon in May of 2010.  He was very inquisitive!  I don’t think he took one morsel of food from the feeder, but instead checked everything out very methodically and even peered at us through the window!

I wonder what he saw!?

If only we could know what was going on in that little bird brain of his!

 


The sun came out just long enough for me to shoot a vole (with my camera, that is!)

Interior Alaska is having a big vole year!  This should mean large populations of birds that prey on them right?  Like owls and falcons.  I’m seeing a Merlin falcon around our house every couple of days, and if this vole thought he was safe just sitting right out in the open like this one did yesterday, then the falcons will have a successful season.  Maybe he was curious of me, or more probably he thought he was being sly by not moving.  And for the poor eyes of humans, unlike falcons, we will often be fooled.

Nearly every woman I know wrinkles her nose when voles are mentioned.  But I think they’re adorable.  Not quite as cute as the typical mouse, but close.  Though maybe the ladies are right to be suspect – voles have lots of parasites and can even infect humans with the protozoan Giardia.  They are also notorious for eating garden plants and ruining whole crops.  They might be able to turn me against them if they start finding an appetite for the precious cabbage or squash seedlings I doted on from seed, and that are now in the garden trying to adjust to rain, cold and wind.  (Then again, moose eat my cabbages every fall and I still love them.)

I’m quite sure this is a northern red-backed vole.  Apparently they live only about a year but multiply quickly because they start reproducing as early as 8 weeks old. Gestation length is 3 weeks, each litter can number from 2-11, and one female can have up to 6 litters in one year!

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, voles are “staple foods of weasels, marten, foxes, coyotes, all owls, most hawks, inland breeding gulls, jaegers, and occasionally great blue herons, domestic cats, northern pike, and other voles.”  (!)  This little guy will eat lichen, fungi, seeds, grasses, fruit, insects, and meat.

If you’re wondering how big (or little) he is, my estimation is 3 inches long.  The green on the ground next to him is moss growth because of a wet spring, and we’re seeing the make up of a scant bit of organic matter on the silty ground.  So he is tiny.  In the photo below, you can see that his little front paw blends perfectly with the dead grass.  And perhaps evolution has dictated he have a red back to blend in with the orange-ish dead leaves on the floor of the forests that he inhabits.

Thanks for reading and here’s to hoping we get some well-deserved sunny hot weather in Fairbanks really soon!


Honeymoon Bluebird

Exactly 4 years ago today I took this photo of a Mountain Bluebird in Yellowstone Park.  It was 2 days after my wedding – my husband and I were on our honeymoon.  (On the right is one of the amazing wedding photos Loneman Photography created.)

Supposedly Mountain Bluebirds do visit interior Alaska in the summer but I’ve never seen one here.

I’m happy to say that the population of Mountain Bluebirds, like Eastern Bluebirds, has been aided in conservation efforts by humans.  By putting up nest boxes, humans have helped bluebirds increase in number since a decline in the mid-1900s.   Finally, a success story!


Black-Capped Chickadee Beak Deformity

First seen in the winter of 1991-92, Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformities are now quite common, according to the Alaska Science Center.  To date, there have been over 2100 reports of chickadee beak deformities in Alaska, and only 31 outside of Alaska.  In the photo above, you can see that the chickadee’s beak is at least twice as long as it should be, and the bottom part is crossed and curved up.

The Northwestern Crow suffers from this malady as well, with an astounding 17% of adult birds in Alaska exhibiting some level of beak deformity (as opposed to 6-10% of adult Black-Capped Chickadees).

Other birds with reported beak deformities are the Black-Billed Magpie, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Stellar’s Jay – although none of these reports come anywhere close to the high number of sightings of the Black-Capped Chickadee.  Other species of chickadee have been seen with the problem too but they number under 10 total.  Whatever the source of the problem, Black-Caps are especially vulnerable to it.

This map (from alaska.usgs.gov) shows locations of Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformity sightings.  At first they were centered around Bristol Bay and the Mat-Su Valley but they soon spread to Fairbanks (where I live) and elsewhere.  There are plenty of sightings in remote locations so the problem does not exist only in populated areas.

The poor creatures with deformed beaks often have a very hard time eating – it’s actually kind of amazing that they do get by at all.  The one on the right kept rubbing the elongated portion of its beak on the wood of our feeder, as if attempting to rub it off.  No doubt feeders and even garbage help to keep them alive but mortality is undoubtedly higher among them.  Normal preening is greatly disrupted.  And though many of them do find a mate and breed, fewer eggs hatch to a pair in which the female is deformed and fewer young survive when the male is deformed.

Possible causes are contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, disease, genetic abnormalities and parasites.  Read more about those at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity/causes.html

On the left is an example of a normal beak.

 


Running out of suet, after a long cold winter…


Say’s Phoebe on Rosie Creek Trail

I spotted this sunbathing beauty near Rosie Creek Trail outside of Fairbanks in August 2009.

Maybe it was migrating south.  Or maybe it was spending the last couple of days surveying its territory, waiting for a Crane Fly to wander by.  Either way, doesn’t it look more majestic than its humble 4 or 5 inches?

The Say’s Phoebe is named after Thomas Say, a naturalist who named hundreds of new species at the beginning of the 1800s.  He identified over 1,000 species of beetle alone, and over 400 other insects.  He saw and described the Say’s Phoebe during an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819.

But isn’t it kind of silly to associate this enigmatic little creature to a man from the 1800s?  And what did Native Americans call the Say’s Phoebe?  … What is in a name anyway?

… Alas, we must communicate.

 

You might have noticed that this spruce tree has a lot of cones.  Apparently, the year after a conifer goes through a period of stress – such as drought – the tree produces a crop of cones that is much larger than normal. The dark ones are immature.

This is a Black Spruce (there are no naturally occurring pine trees in interior or northern Alaska though spruce trees are often mistaken for them).  Black Spruce is looked at with disdain by a lot of Alaskans because it represents unbuildable wetlands fraught with frost lenses and mucky tundra.

But this mucky tundra is the Say’s Phoebe’s living room for the summer.  It spends its years flying between an arctic paradise and a tropical paradise.  To the Say’s Phoebe, this fair-sized Black Spruce (12-15 feet tall) is the perfect perch for hunting mosquitos, unbuildable wetlands and all.

 

 


A Merlin Hits our Window

I was only a few feet from the window when this Merlin flew into it with a jarring thud.  As you an see, he is quite stunned in the first photo.  Poor guy.  He’s about a foot long, a pretty small falcon.  At first I thought he was an American Kestrel since I had never seen a Merlin.  Didn’t even know they were in interior Alaska.

This one is either a female or a juvenile (or both).  No doubt he was drawn to the multitudes of Juncos and Chickadees at our feeder (actually in the summer we don’t use a feeder but just put sunflower seed hearts on the deck railing so they don’t gorge themselves).  So this little guy was hunting our lovely resident birds, hmm.

Turns out the Taiga Merlin is quite common in Alaska and Canada and their populations are stable.  There is also the Prairie Merlin that is increasing in number – apparently it’s getting quite used to city life where it overwinters, feeding on rodents and birds.  The Black Merlin lives in the Pacific Northwest (it’s numbers are also stable).  (There is also a Eurasian Merlin that is a separate species, having ceased to interbreed with the North American Merlin at least a million years ago, and their numbers are less certain.)

Nearly all of Alaska’s Merlins migrate.  They may winter in North America or South America, often along coastlines feeding on shorebirds.  No vegetarian meals for this carnivore – the smallest thing it eats are perhaps dragonflies plucked from the air as it’s soaring over the trees during migration.

The Merlin is a tough little falcon, it will attack anything and teams up with its mate to cooperatively hunt.  It even takes birds larger than itself, like pigeons; it is known as a “pigeon hawk” in many areas.

Instead of tedious nest-building Merlins use old crow or magpie nests, or they make due with a cliff outcropping or scrape in the gravel.  The female lays 3 to 6 eggs and sits on them for a month, both feed the little ones for another month, and then the fledglings continue to beg for awhile longer.

Here is a photo of the powder he left on the window.  He really hit it hard.  Many birds have a light dusting of powder all throughout their feathers.  It comes from down feathers that grow and disintegrate.  Since feathers are made of keratin that’s what the dust is made of, and it actually causes allergies in some people who keep birds indoors.  For the bird, it’s crucial to waterproofing and cleaning.

My husband and I have tried various things to prevent birds from hitting our windows, like hanging shiny objects over them, but I haven’t found anything yet that is attractive and easy to clean around (and effective for that matter).

The Merlin eventually flew up to a railing, then off into the woods.  I hope he remembers how painful our windows are so he doesn’t fly into them again.  More than just his ego was bruised I’m sure.